Former President Barack Obama told an audience at a Nelson Mandela Foundation event in South Africa Tuesday marking the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s birth that income inequality and other disruptions caused by a “backlash” against globalization and liberalization were factors in the 9/11 attacks, the resurgence of populism, Chinese aggression, and the rise of President Vladimir Putin in Russia.
On the latter point, CNN became very excited about what it portrayed as Obama “commenting clearly on what we saw unfold in Helsinki between President Trump and Vladimir Putin,” although in truth Obama did not “comment clearly” on the Trump administration at all. Obama took plenty of thinly veiled shots at President Donald Trump and his voters, but he stayed away from clear commentary, perhaps trusting friendly media to make it clear for him:
What he said about Russia is that it felt “humiliated by its reduced influence since the collapse of the Soviet Union” and “threatened by democratic movements along its borders,” so it began “reasserting authoritarian control, and in some cases meddling with its neighbors.”
There was another passage in his speech where Obama decried the “utter loss of shame among political leaders when they’re caught in a lie and they just double down,” which was also surely a jab at Trump, although the president who told the most consequential lie in modern American political history (“If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it”), probably is not the right man to initiate a conversation about doubling down on falsehoods.
Both Obama and his hosts referred to his appearance at the Nelson Mandela Foundation event as a “lecture,” and for the most part the former president played it that way, delivering an academic lecture about Mandela’s role in the civil rights movement and putting his struggle against apartheid in the context of a larger story about the old world order giving way to a more enlightened new order that still has plenty of problems.
Obama’s theory holds that “the structures of privilege and powers and exploitation never completely went away,” even though the new aristocracy fancies itself to be more progressive:
Although still mostly white and male, as a group, they reflect a diversity of nationalities and ethnicities that would not have existed a hundred years ago. A decent percentage consider themselves liberal in their politics, modern and cosmopolitan in their outlook, unburdened by parochialism or nationalism or overt racial prejudice or strong religious sentiment. They are equally comfortable in New York or London or Shanghai or Nairobi or Buenos Aires or Johannesburg.
Many are sincere and effective in their philanthropy. Some of them count Nelson Mandela among their heroes. Some even supported Barack Obama for the presidency of the United States!
And by virtue of my status as a former head of state, some of them consider me as an honorary member of the club. I get invited to these fancy things, you know. They’ll fly me out.
This was another part of the speech that landed with a thud as Obama waited for applause or laughter that never came. Quite a bit of this speech was either a standard-issue Barack Obama ego trip or fodder for the U.S. media that appeared to leave South Africans politely flummoxed. Perhaps they expected more than 20 minutes of a one-hour speech about Nelson Mandela to be about Nelson Mandela.
According to Obama, vast forces were unleashed by income inequality and other disruptions of globalism, forces so powerful and well-funded that even he could not master them during his time in the White House. That is why racism, sexism, and privilege were worse when he left office than when he arrived. He could only do so much to hold back the tide of darkness, even with unparalleled political strength, media support, and centralized control over the U.S. economy.
He could only do so much to overcome the terrible compassion deficit of capitalism, whose fatcat masters were too busy shutting down factories and shoveling their money into offshore tax havens to worry about the Little Guy. Interestingly, he listed “their decision to take advantage of lower-cost immigrant labor” as one of their sins, which seems very out of touch with the Democrat Party’s current enthusiasm for illegal aliens.
Obama said the shot-callers lack “a ground-level understanding of the consequences that will be felt by particular people in particular communities”:
From their boardrooms or retreats, global decision-makers don’t get a chance to see sometimes the pain in the faces of laid-off workers. Their kids don’t suffer when cuts in public education and health care result as a consequence of a reduced tax base because of tax avoidance. They can’t hear the resentment of an older tradesman when he complains that a newcomer doesn’t speak his language on a jobsite when he wants work. They’re less subject to the discomfort and the displacement that some of their countrymen may feel as globalization scrambles not only existing economic arrangements but traditional social and religious mores.
That is where the ugly forces of authoritarianism, populism, and extremism come in:
At the end of the 20th century, while some Western commentators were declaring “the end of history” and the triumph of liberal democracy and the virtues of the global supply chain, so many missed signs of a brewing backlash – a backlash that arrived in so many forms.
It announced itself most violently with 9/11 and the emergence of transnational terrorist networks, fueled by an ideology that perverted one of the world’s great religions and asserted a struggle not just between Islam and the West, but between Islam and modernity. An ill-advised U.S. invasion of Iraq didn’t help, accelerating a sectarian conflict.
Russia, already humiliated by its reduced influence since the collapse of the Soviet Union, feeling threatened by democratic movements along its borders, suddenly started reasserting authoritarian control, and in some cases meddling with its neighbors.
China, emboldened by its economic success, started bristling against criticism of its human rights record. It framed the promotion of universal values as nothing more than foreign meddling, imperialism under a new name.
Obama then took his most pointed shot at the 2016 election and the current political environment in the U.S. and Europe, making an effort to bridge the gap between his own corporatism and the Bernie Sanders insurgency from the hard left:
Within the United States, within the European Union, challenges to globalization first came from the left, but then came more forcefully from the right, as you started seeing populist movements – which, by the way, are often cynically funded by right-wing billionaires intent on reducing government constraints on their business interests.
These movements tapped the unease that was felt by many people who lived outside the urban cores, fears that economic security was slipping away, that their social status and privileges were eroding, that their cultural identities were being threatened by outsiders – somebody that didn’t look like them or sound like them or pray as they did.
Perhaps more than anything else, the devasting impact of the 2008 financial crisis, in which the reckless behavior of financial elites resulted in years of hardship for ordinary people all around the world, made all the previous assurances of experts ring hollow – all those assurances that somehow financial regulators knew what they were doing.
Obama denounced “the politics of fear, resentment, and retrenchment” and warned, “That kind of politics is now on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.”
“Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained, the form of it, but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning. In the West, you’ve got far-right parties that oftentimes are based not just on platforms of protectionism and closed borders, but also on barely hidden racial nationalism,” he said.
Obama also took a swipe at Chinese authoritarianism, summing up its mercantilist appeal as, “Who needs free speech when the economy is going good?”
But in the next breath, he assaulted social media for spreading “hate speech and propaganda and conspiracy theories.”
President Obama did brush up promisingly against the threat of viral authoritarianism and the sad status of the Internet as a tool more often of oppression than liberation, but he was too focused on using that idea as a club against his partisan adversaries to understand how the virus spreads from the left, and his compassion for the Little Guys and Gals left behind by globalism seems to end very abruptly when they vote the wrong way.